On scissors and Shavuot

On scissors and Shavuot

Jewish folk art takes on new life in skilled hands

Four Flags (Deborah Ugoretz)
Four Flags (Deborah Ugoretz)

Although artist Deborah Ugoretz moved to Brooklyn in 2011 — relocating both her home and her studio — for more than 30 years the Teaneck community could claim the talented painter, papercutter, and ketubah maker as its own.

Twenty of those years were spent as a member of the town’s Congregation Beth Sholom, for which she designed the High Holiday Torah mantles and parochet.

Before the pandemic, Ms. Ugoretz had a solo show at the Museum at Eldridge Street, where she taught a hands-on course in Jewish papercutting. She also taught workshops at the Yeshiva University Museum. Now, she will be bringing her teaching talents back to Teaneck, offering a virtual Shavuot papercutting workshop for Beth Sholom on April 25. (See below.)

Amplifying the theme of the workshop, Ms. Ugoretz explained that “Jewish papercuts were often associated with customs and ceremonies of holidays and family life. In the late 19th century, the Jews of Poland and Russia made small papercuts for the holiday of Shavuot. These ‘Shevuoslekh’ were cut out by schoolchildren and affixed to the window panes of their cheder. Often, these decorations depicted flowers and animals. Occasionally, they depicted soldiers. It was just decorative,” she said, the themes being based on “what the children liked.”

Ms. Ugoretz, who began doing her own papercutting in the early 1980s, said the upcoming workshop will explore some examples of Shavuot papercuts and “we will create our own folded, cut paper designs for the holiday, continuing the tradition of a 19th century Jewish folk custom.”

The virtual group will do a rosette, “in Yiddish, a raizel.” Participants, who are asked to pre-register, will get a materials list, and Ms. Ugoretz will take them through the project “step by step.” For those who want to get an idea of what they will be doing, Ms. Ugoretz has a YouTube video demonstrating her process.

“I have been doing artwork forever,” she said. “I was always drawing.” Her interest in Jewish art developed in the mid-1970s, a time of Jewish cultural growth and innovation, as evidenced by publications such as the Jewish Catalog. She also was active in the chavurah movement.

“With Wisdom is A House Built,” from the private collection of the Frankel Center at the University of Michigan. (Deborah Ugoretz)

Ms. Ugoretz was inspired to take up papercutting by the late Tsirl Waletzky, a major contemporary papercutting artist in American Yiddish culture. According to a brief profile of the artist, Ms. Waletzky’s papercuts differed from “traditional forms in that they are free flowing and less bound to structure and symmetry.” Calling Ms. Waletzky her mentor, Ms. Ugoretz said that “she was not religious, but she incorporated Jewish symbols and images from Jewish poetry.

“I’ve done it myself,” she said, citing a piece she based on the works of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Others of her works have been influenced by Jewish texts. Her three-dimensional “Sanctuary” is based on a psalm, while some pieces draw from proverbs, including “The House of Knowledge,” in the collection of the Frankel Center at the University of Michigan.

She has her own favorites, she continued, including her installation “Conversations.” “I also did a special piece for [activist and playwright] Tony Kushner when he was honored by the Workman’s Circle.”

Among other talents, Ms. Ugoretz is known for her beautiful ketubot, into which she incorporates papercutting. “There’s been a tradition of Jewish papercutting for several hundred years,” she said. “What distinguished Jewish papercuts from other styles of papercutting is that they were made as a way to celebrate holidays, life-cycle events, designate the direction of prayer, or for other things, like yahrzeits.”

Basically, she explained, such motivating factors stimulated the practice of hiddur mitzvah, or, according to myjewishlearning.com, “taking the time and making an effort to create or acquire the most beautiful ceremonial objects possible in order to enrich the religious observance with [an] aesthetic dimension.”

“There was a strong tradition in Eastern Europe and Italy, where they did a lot of ketubot incorporating papercutting into their design,” Ms. Ugoretz said. “In Eastern Europe, Poland, Ukraine, the Carpathian Mountain regions, they did a lot of mizrachs and amulets.” They also made papercuts for Shavuot.

“It’s such a beautiful holiday,” Ms. Ugoretz said. “I don’t know why it’s gotten such short shrift,” she wondered, since it marks both the spring harvest and the giving of the Ten Commandments. “In Israel it’s very important because of the harvest,” she added.

“Jewish papercutting is a folk tradition, and it was mostly done by men,” Ms. Ugoretz said. “My theory is that it was possibly first done by wood carvers, using papercuts as templates for their wood carvings. Some of them who didn’t have work would create papercuts just for the purpose of hiddur mitzvah, to honor God.” Non-Jews also made papercuts as a folk art, “because it was accessible,” requiring only scissors, a knife, and a cutting surface.

Ms. Ugoretz said the upcoming workshop will offer participants several benefits. “They’ll learn a skill they can apply pretty easily again and again, they’ll learn a bit about a traditional art form — and they’ll have fun!”

Who: Papercutter Deborah Ugoretz

What: Will offer a Shavuot papercutting workshop for Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck

When: Sunday, April 25, 11 a.m. — 12:30 p.m.

How: On Zoom

How much: Free

For more information: Call (201) 833-2620 or go to cbsteaneck.org.

What else: Pre-registration is requested

read more: